CHAPEL HILL — Opening their postseason play at home, the #1 ranked and top overall seeded Tar Heels improved to 53-8 Friday night with a 6-3 win over the Golden Griffins of Canisius (42-16) in a game that was closer than the final score showed.
“It was a hard-fought win, we really had to grind — grind it out,” said UNC Coach Mike Fox after his Tar Heels advanced to the “winners” game at 6PM Saturday night against Towson.
But early on it didn’t look like Carolina was going to be challenged. Fox’s team started out hot like they have all year, leading 3-0 after only six at-bats. Outfielder Brian Holbert crushed a double down the right field line that led to his 54th and 55th RBI of the season to give UNC the quick lead.
The #1 ranked Tar Heels now own a +140 advantage in runs scored against their 2013 opponents in the first three innings.
But even though they were down four runs early, Canisius didn’t quit. “I definitely think we built confidence as the game went on,” said right fielder Ryan Coppinger.
Coppinger’s coach echoed his sentiments. “A pitch here, and at-bat there, a play there, a call there, and maybe we’re talking about a different ball game,” said head coach Mike McRae. “I just ran out of innings.”
With how McRae’s team performed against the nation’s most dominant squad in the Tar Heels, you can’t blame him for being confident. Canisius gave up early runs in the first two innings but then absolutely locked down UNC’s big-time bats — shutting Carolina out for five straight innings and retiring eight of nine batters at one point.
Facing a low scoring, 4-3, game after seven innings, the Heels needed some defense of their own. With the pressure on in the top of the eighth, Mike Fox went to his freshman phenom closer, Trent Thornton.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a freshman closer,” said Coach Fox. “He’s a special kid. He even made the dean’s list. He’s got that ‘it’ factor.”
Thornton struggled at first, and was soon facing bases loaded with only one out — with only a one run lead. But the talented right-hander with a season ERA of 1.29 would come through once again for the Heels. Thornton struck out two straight while looking — erupting with a show of emotion that really got the home crowd into the game.
“It’s fun to have pressure,” said Thornton.
Feeling the momentum switch back to the Tar Heels, superfan Tom Jensen (known by anyone who has stepped foot near Boshamer these last few years as the “Tarrr-chant guy”) knew it was time to get the crowd going.
When asked about what fan support can do for his alma mater, Jensen was all smiles. “To have a sold out crowd tonight really says something about how much the community is getting behind this team, and [the Tar Heels] deserve it. I think a lot of the great support has to do with the new stadium, and to their credit, the athletic department has really done a lot to reach out to the community. I think a lot of people just realize how special these guys are want to come out and support this team.”
Hear all of Jensen’s comments:
And with that crowd behind them, the Heels responded. Mike Zolk and Chaz Frank would both record RBIs to give their squad a comfortable 6-3 lead heading into the ninth, where Thornton would once again made quick work of the Canisius offense. The freshman struck out three straight to send the Heels into the “winners” game on Saturday.
Coach Fox on if Thornton’s success surprises him:
The win ensures that Carolina will make Sunday’s games at the very least in the double elimination format. Mike Fox’s #1 ball club will face Towson (30-28), who beat Florida Atlantic 7-2 in the early game at Boshamer Stadium on Friday afternoon.
Like Canisius, Towson will be no pushover. But as the #1 team in the country, everyone is going to give UNC their best shot — something Chaz Frank wasn’t afraid to admit in his post game comments:
“We’re the number one team and the number one seed. And we’re going to have a target on our back. We’re ready for that.”